Sunday, March 5, 2017

Notes From the Far End of the Path


Yesterday I shared my new favorite song at a workshop I gave at my school. This was the third workshop in my annual series, a series I’ve been doing non-stop since 1976. At the end of the spirited singing, I remarked:

Gonna build me a mountain, from a little hill.

When I began my teaching career in 1975, I was standing right in this very spot. I had a vision of the world I wanted to live in that would shape every decision I made as a teacher. In terms of experience, materials, a developed pedagogy and such, my hill was small indeed. But I could imagine that looming mountain far in the distance and had an intuition that it was worth climbing. Or building.

Gonna build me a mountain, at least, I hope I will.

No one guaranteed that it would work or told me the sure-fire steps to success. The whole venture was built from a small flame of hope.

Gonna build me a mountain, gonna build it high.

Just out of college, I already was disappointed by how low my schooling had set the bar. If this was going to be a worthy undertaking, I knew it had to be higher than the prevailing mountains in the landscape I had been handed.

Don’t know how I’m gonna do it, only know I’m gonna try.

Ain’t that the truth! I had NO idea of what I was doing or how I was going to do it better. I just knew that I had to try and kept stepping forward in faith that the steps would reveal themselves bit by bit. That I would notice when I wandered too far off trail into the poison oak or stayed too long in one campsite. That I would have the good sense to keep moving forward.

Gonna build me a daydream, from a little hope.

See above. Not only the large daydream, but the daily class plans where I would dream the class into being first, then teach it in real time with real kids and then reflect on what worked out okay and what went so terribly wrong and why.

Gonna push that daydream, up the mountain slope

Great definition of the practice of teaching. The daily push uphill with the occasional Sisyphus moments when the whole thing rolled back down to the bottom. But in faith that I was not being cruelly tortured in Hades for penance, that eventually I’d reach the places with the great views and the rock would stay put.

Gonna build a daydream, gonna see it through.

Once convinced that the path was a worthy one, I made some silent vow to see it through. Not to say I imagined I would be 42 years in one school and still no plans to retire. I took it a year at a time and the years just piled up. But the beckoning finger was the one that made it clear, “Not yet. You have much more work to do.” And of course, as I ascended and got closer to the top, the top kept changing its address, moving a bit higher than it seemed to be yesterday. And in fact, I long ago realized that there is no end to this path and there is no on peak. The top is in each moment of integrity, authenticity, serendipity and grace that can happen—but never be guaranteed—in classes with children.

Build a daydream and a mountain, gonna make them both come true.

Well, they did. And still do. The dream was a worthy one and the mountain a sturdy one.

Gonna build me a heaven, from a little hell.

Let’s be realistic. I had many a heavenly class, but I paid my dues in hell as well. I can describe all the corners of that hot fiery place, the kids I missed connecting with or connecting with in the wrong way, the terrible ideas for classes and the good ideas that I didn't do well, all the ways I felt misunderstood and ill-treated by kids, faculty, administration, parents and myself as well. Nobody gets through this playing harps on fluffy clouds all day. Plenty of blaring bagpipes out-of-tune—and with me playing!

Gonna build a heaven, and I know darn well,
If I build my mountain with a lot of care…

Care I did and care I still do and while I didn’t always take care as well as I should have, I cared to take care.

Put my daydream on the mountain, heaven will be waitin’ there.

So I here I stand in front of you in the same place in the same room in the same city in the same country (well, maybe not that last one) 42 years later and I can testify wholeheartedly, heaven was indeed waiting for me here and here it is, right now with all of you, yesterday with all the kids and hopefully tomorrow with whoever is sitting in the circle with me. The view is magnificent and so are the wildflowers at my feet and the blue sky overhead.

What do I have to teach you? Well, all the things we’ve done, the material I’ve been lucky to gather, the process of developing the material that I’ve studied so assiduously, the sense of play and fun and humor and community that sits in the center of my daydream and more. But perhaps my biggest responsibility now is to show you what still might lie ahead for all of you who are at the beginning or the middle of your career. Not a burnt-out grizzled old codger bitter and cynical, but a youthful (inside) dreamer whose vision is yet stronger and clearer having been affirmed over and over and over again by all the kids and the adults I teach. And the beckoning finger saying, “Keep climbing. The air is fresh, the grass is green and the view is stunning.”

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